For several years an Australian nurse named Bonnie Ware worked with dying patients in the last twelve weeks of their lives and began recording their regrets. We are going to list the five most common and then talk about the existential currents that run underneath them. Thinking about death is uncomfortable and scary but even more terrifying is the possibility that we will discover we misused the time we had. It’s a tragedy that imminent death is often what makes people start to consider what is important to them.
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Existential thought stresses self-actualization. This is the unique ability you have as a human to unfold your Self in various ways. Most other organisms don’t have this choice, and none to the same degree. We have used the example elsewhere of a sequoia seedling. Under the right conditions it will grow into a mighty tree without any choice in the matter. It does what it is supposed to do as a matter of course. Even the higher mammals like primates or dolphins don’t have close to the same flexibility that we do.
Existential freedom is at the center of what makes us human. It’s at once a precious gift and a terrible burden. With freedom comes the responsibility to make choices and the freedom to not self-actualize. You can have an inkling of what your true path is but never have the courage to walk it. Many hand over their human freedom to others, living their lives based on expectations and societal norms, lowering their anxiety in the moment but betraying who and what they could become. Some are driven by power or wealth or fame or envy or spite or any other variable that obscures their true Self.
Read through the list again and you will see the current flowing underneath all five regrets is the dawning realization that choice was possible all along. In our daily lives we often feel propelled by outside forces like the demands of work and family or the cultural and societal rules that have been instilled in us since we were very young. We forget that at bottom we always have a choice, even if this choice is limited to the attitude we take towards the unalterable aspects of our lives.
Every one of the regrets on the list above is about having squandered the gift of freedom and betraying Self. Whatever your actual situation is right now you probably have a lot more freedom than you believe. Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to figure it out.